Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has had quite the varied career and further proof of that innovation was evident with the first Life of Pi trailer. The filmmaker behind Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk is equally at home with small indies and big blockbusters. He further pushes his comfort zone with the filmed-in-3D epic based on the bestselling book Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Movie Fanatic met Lee in Las Vegas to talk about Life of Pi and from the sound of it, when he read the novel, he wasn’t sure a film was even possible. “The book is good on its own merit. It’s fantastic and mind-boggling. In terms of thinking of it as a movie, it feels impossible. The premise of the book kills movies,” Lee said and laughed.
The story of Pi is about a young Indian man who, while moving via ship to Canada with his family, finds himself alone in a life raft with a tiger. His family's boat sunk in an insane storm. Pi’s family owned a zoo in India and when times got tight, they packed up the animals on a ship and sailed with them to North America to sell them to another zoo and settle in the Great White North.
Immediately Pi must find how to survive the open ocean, but also not becoming a meal to the vicious hunter. For any filmmaker, the story would bring challenges. Yet when Lee thought about making his first shot-in-3D movie, it all started to come together. “That was really exciting, the idea of making it in 3D. That is what made me think making the movie was possible because such a big part of the movie is visual,” Lee said. “That was more intimidating than all the technical challenges.”
The director admitted that he is the type of man who, when a challenge seems unsurpassable, he and his team dive in. “When it comes to technical, we’re fools! We’ll try anything that we think will work. You just get that somehow, someway it is going to work,” Lee said.
But it was the telling of Pi’s story and the vast landscape created by the book in his head that Lee wondered how to bring to the screen.
“The essence of the book is in his mind and channels the power of imagination. If you want to capture that, you are making an expensive movie which has to have broad appeal to the public. You stretch the power of the storytelling and examine it at the same time. That’s the most daunting challenge that I faced. In some ways, that’s what I get hooked on because it seems so impossible. After 20 years, I can still make a movie like a virgin,” he said, laughing.
It's teased in this The Life of Pi featurette... the fact that the story has an open-for-interpretation ending. Its biggest asset is how it opens up a platform for discussion. “It’s about thinking about the unthinkable -- the leap of faith when it comes to the subject matter of God. How is our emotional relation with the unknown? There’s also the concept of fate, you cannot prove it and movies are very realistic media,” Lee said.
How do you discuss illusion and the importance of illusion when it comes to surviving on the open water for weeks at a time with a ferocious Bengal tiger? “That is more important than reality in this case. That’s something as an artist and storyteller, I deeply appreciate. It brings out the power of storytelling in relationship to God and how that brought meaning to life and how it brings us together,” Lee said.
Making the film was an effort as vexing as recalling the long train of numbers that shares the film’s titular character’s name. “We have to share a story in order for it to have meaning in life. Otherwise, it’s like the number pi -- it’s an irrational number that goes on and on. The book is brilliant. But, it’s difficult because a movie works on an emotional level.”
The key to making the story work is the casting of Pi. “If you want to spend that much time in the ocean alone, he must be watchable. And he’s not Tom Hanks,” Lee said and laughed. “He has to look intelligent and emotional… that is all important.”
When Suraj Sharma walked in and auditioned, Lee knew he had his man. “As you see, he has a very compelling face. Most of all, I think the biggest talent an actor has is their ability to have the audience believe them. The investment of belief is what counts,” Lee said.
The director, who has worked with about as many A-list actors as they come, had found a match made in heaven for his complex tale. “Suraj is just one of those people who have a natural talent. He never really acted before. He kept proving [himself] over the three months that we shot only him on the water. He did every shot. We shot chronologically so he could lose weight. It’s quite an ordeal for a 17-year-old boy who never got sick, never got injured, never lost focus… you have to take that as a gift.”
Now that he had his Pi, his team went to work on the other half of this survival story: The tiger. “It’s a mix of real and CG,” Lee said of the cinematic adversary to our hero. “It was a daunting act for the visual effects team. We have a real tiger and you have to deliver that in 3D and people cannot tell. They took the challenge.”
The rewards of Lee using 3D on Life of Pi have been much chronicled of late. The great professor of the filmmaking technique has even chimed in. “Hollywood should see what Ang Lee has done,” James Cameron said. “And they should be on 3D like seagulls on a French fry.”
Lee found it rewarding, albeit a bit strange. “In terms of shooting, it’s clumsy. It’s not handy. Changing lenses used to take a minute. It will take at least 20 minutes for 3D. You have to think about it before you make a move. Sometimes there are technical problems, and you just don’t know what to do,” he said.
“It takes a long time to sort things out. I think it will get much better now. It’s like every three months they invent something new. It’s just a learning process. But many times, obstacles are the vehicle for invention. It was quite an adventure. It’s really exciting that you are pushing the film envelope. You are breaking and setting new rules.”